Monday, March 28, 2011

USDA spending levels for food

If you have a clear idea of how much you're spending a week and month on food, you may find this interesting:

This is the most recent table of the USDA's estimated cost of food for individuals and families at different spending levels. I first became aware of this table through Amy Dacyzyn's Tightwad Gazette back in the 90s. 

Now, it's easy to look at this and say, as I do, that you could easily feed one adult on less than the $153.10 per month shown for one adult female on the thrifty plan, and I have no idea how I could spend the $304.80 for the liberal plan, especially as these rates exclude all restaurant meals. But their numbers are based on prices all over the country, including cities where prices are much higher, and I believe they look for ordinary prices, not sales prices. Many of us save money on food in ways they don't take into account. And can't reasonably. I briefly skimmed through their report on how this was calculated, and while I saw a few things I disagreed with, I also better understand how they come up with this. I will note that I'm particularly puzzled with the INCREASE in allowance for families over individuals. It's cheaper per person to feed several people than one, not more expensive...

While we tend to compare these amounts to OUR local shopping, like it or not, the majority of the US population live in urban centers where food tends to be very expensive (relatively). Over 10% of the total US population live in the Greater NYC and Greater LA alone, and 0ver 70 metropolitan areas have a higher population than Alaska's total population. And many people are not aware that grocery stores in the poorest neighborhoods tend to be far more expensive than those in affluent neighborhoods. The people in those neighborhoods often are unaware that there's a store 10 miles away with much better prices, or have no access to them. Owning your own car in some of the biggest cities is impractical even for many of the middle class due to things like monthly or daily parking charges, much less for the poor in those cities. And interestingly, public transportation often doesn't go near the shopping in more affluent areas.

Another thing that rather shocked me is that once you get a certain distance from major urban areas, the price of groceries can skyrocket again. A friend says her elderly parents in East Oregon pay outrageous prices at their local grocery store. While it may be  more expensive for these smaller stores to get their food from the wholesalers, that should be off-set by the far lower overhead in these towns. Her conclusion, and one I agree with, is that the store owners essentially feel that they have a captive customer base. It may be legal, but it's not good business practice in the long-run because your customers not only have no reason to be loyal but may actively detest you. Small towns closer to urban centers may be a bit more expensive, but usually the difference is low enough to be offset by gas savings.

The problem with a single number for the entire country is that prices are very different across the country. Those expensive areas push up the average prices, but the USDA can't ignore them or exclude them. A majority, perhaps a large majority, lives in those expensive places. These numbers are the ones used by courts in estimating child support and bankruptcy and by agencies. It would be nice if we could have "regionally adjusted" rates, but then you'd have people in Texas protesting that you were allowing them less than someone in NYC.

For the people with the over-priced local stores, my suggestion is team-work. If you live in one of those poor neighborhoods in an urban area, find one person with a vehicle, and 4 or 5 people go together once a week to one of those affluent grocery stores to shop. Figure out which things you really need that are most overpriced and concentrate on getting those (and consider space in the vehicle in deciding how much to get). However, to avoid getting hassled or singled out at the store, I'd recommend overdressing for the visit. If an entire group of people who look out of place (i.e. poor) come in at once, paranoid store managers could overreact. I don't care if someone takes offense to that from either side; think reality, not the ideal world.

For those in a rural area, you can use the same approach once a month; several people drive together to a much lower priced store, or find someone who already regularly makes a trip to a city and, as a group, offer to pay part or all of that person's gas in exchange for picking up some staples for your group. Buy bulk items and divide it among the group. I like the idea of several people driving in together, planning an entire day's outing to include other shopping (thrift stores maybe?) in addition to groceries once a month. Realistically, you may not save that much on your groceries with gas costs added, but it's a quiet form of protest, and your local store owner might get the message if enough people do this. Though take a close look at the store owner. If he or she is driving a beat-up old car and lives in a very modest house and works long hours in his or her store, then there may be a legitimate reason for the high prices.

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